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Eastern Promises

If you can take the blood, you’ll see one of the smartest thrillers of the year.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

An innocent midwife trying to do what is best for a motherless baby gets entangled in Russian mob secrets in the engrossing thriller Eastern Promises. David Cronenberg (A History of Violence, The Fly) delivers one of his most straightforwardly satisfying films, even if his usual doses of graphic bloody violence tend to distract from the more intriguing goings on.

Anna (Naomi Watts) is a nurse living with her mother and Russian uncle in London. When a bleeding pregnant woman is rushed to the emergency room, Anna helps deliver the baby, but the mother is lost. In the deceased woman’s pocket is a diary in Russian. As Anna gets the diary translated, she begins to unravel its dark and sordid secrets. At the same time, she tries to find out more about this woman who left this child. That quest brings her into the world of restaurateur and Russian mob lord Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), his son (Vincent Cassell) and his son’s friend Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). The deeper Anna goes, the more trouble she finds herself in.

Eastern Promises could have easily slid into the usual cliché of a person left alone to defend herself with vigilante justice (see Jodi Foster’s movie that also opened last weekend), but it is much smarter than that. Instead, Anna’s response to her trouble is made more believable by the cast of real life humans around her: She has family support, there are police who are not stereotypically incompetent, there are even mobsters who show an ounce of humanity. Sure, Cronenberg gets his point across that this is a bad underbelly to a bad underworld, but he knows he doesn’t have to portray everything in stark blacks and whites. Indeed, the most interesting secrets have shades of gray.

Intensifying the well-crafted storytelling are some powerful performances by Mortensen and Cassell. These guys are not only believable Russian mobsters, they ooze with the kind of creepy charisma that makes it impossible to take your eyes off them Indeed, if you do, you are afraid they might stick a knife in your throat.

Ultimately, it is this knife-in-the-throat stuff that will turn off some moviegoers. Cronenberg is never satisfied with the simple slitting of a throat. He needs to show it to you clearly while that blade goes back and forth, back and forth. (That’s just in the opening scene.) But if you can make it through the blood, you’re promised one of the smartest thrillers of the year.

Great drama/thriller • R • 100 mins.

Edge of Darkness

© Warner Bros. Pictures

Mel Gibson dishes up a little payback in the action-thriller Edge of Darkness.

A bereaved father hunts conspirators in this capable thriller.

reviewed by Mark Burns, February 4, 2010

Emma (Bojana Novakovic: Drag Me to Hell) has come home to visit and is barely caught up with her dad when she’s murdered in a shotgun blast on the front porch. Rattled, her Boston detective dad Thomas Craven (Mel Gibson) reacts with a tenacious quest to bring her murderer to justice. As he follows the evidence, though, he learns Emma was mixed up in something big. So he finds himself in the thick of intrigue involving the government and the military industrial complex even as he strives to beat justice out of the conspirators.

What ensues is a patiently unraveled mystery punctuated by smart action. For a revenge flick the aggression is restrained, especially as compared to Death Wish or Man on Fire.

The core story of investigation and revenge is neat and straightforward. Smart pacing maintains thrust through interplaying police procedural, empathetic flashback and bug-eyed pursuit.

But there is a lot of noise. Mysterious agent Jedburgh (Ray Winstone: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) is an odd duck, the game player with a British accent who helps tease away one cloak or another that amounts to little more than a distraction. The great conspiracy of tired convolutions comes off lame in the reveal, and half-formed twists serve up more frustration.

Still, director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale) rescues the movie from its more questionable portions with smart suspense. Action strikes quick but stays in context, building evenly and naturally with the story.

As for Gibson, he returns to form easily in his first major role since Signs. His performance brings sinew and empathy and that weird fluttering eyelid thing he does to signal he’s a man on the brink. The only thing standing in the way of connection with his character is the actor’s own tempestuous ravings of recent years.

This isn’t the greatest flick. But it’s good, suspenseful entertainment if you’re looking to toss back some popcorn.

Good thriller • R • 117 mins.

Ella Enchanted

reviewed by Mark Burns

So there’s this girl, Ella (Anne Hathaway: Princess Diaries), who has lived her life under a fairy godmother’s spell of obedience, having no choice but to do exactly as told. Now a young woman, she quests to lose the handicapping curse. Along the way, she stumbles into love with the dashing young Prince Charmont (Hugh Dancy) and must fight to save her crush, as well as fairyland, from the clutches of the evil Prince Regent Edgar (Cary Elwes: Princess Bride; Robin Hood, Men in Tights) while learning that she is the one who determines her own fate.

Ella Enchanted — derived from Gail Carson Levine’s Newbery Award-winning novel — turns out to be an entertaining, counter-traditional fairy tale frolic in the style of Shrek. The sniping of Grimm brothers stereotypes plays out in mod-Medieval settings, complete with hand-cranked mall escalators, pop music, “bat-ox” facial treatments, teen fan mags and the teen-idol stalkers who read them.

Though similar to Shrek in spirit, this movie leans to the girly. Take the opening fly-over of the blindingly colorful storybook village of Frell set to disco music (Electric Light Orchestra’s “Strange Magic”) with a rainbow, unicorn, flowers and cuteness pervading. Then Minnie Driver as a fairy! Ack! It would be small surprise to see Strawberry Shortcake grooming a herd of My Little Ponies in the pastures.

Instead, after the insulin shock subsides, you wake to the narration of Eric Idle (Monty Python) and a smoothly rolling plot that’s funny and, er, charming as driven by Ella’s curse. There are further instances of disco plus a few song-and-dance numbers to sit through, but by then you may succumb to their inevitability and even find them entertaining.

The film’s indignant attitude prevents it from drowning in the saccharine. A life of unwilling compliance has molded Ella into a modern political activist demanding emancipation for the oppressed: elves forced to serve as entertainers, ogres who do eat people but would stop if afforded peace, giants unfairly labeled as mean and ornery who just want freedom from forced labor.

Attitude pervades the fairy tale kingdom through its updated fairy tale caricatures — a reformist elf who hates to sing and wants to become a lawyer, stormtrooper-like black knights and Ella’s wretched stepfamily — which are performed well by the cast as a whole. Hathaway does fine as Ella, and Elwes, hero of the classic Princess Bride, is a successful villain as Edgar.

Ultimately, Ella is an Alka Seltzer tablet of teen romance dropped into the frothy cola of fairy tale surreality. The whole thing bubbles right over the top. But hey, it works for what it is.

Good family comedy • PG • 1:40 mins


A thud of a dud, this one’s a pointless run of ripped-off material, repackaged and tarted up with sharp graphics.

reviewed by Mark Burns

Luke Skywalker releases a Pokemon and discovers the Harry Potter within himself in this alarmingly derivative sword-and-sorcery flick.

Eragon (Luke) is a kindly farm boy who is blond. One day he goes hunting in a forest, where he discovers a blue egg (Pokeball). It is not a stone. Out hatches a dragon named Saphira (Charizard). She grows up quickly. Poof (Pokemon evolution). Eragon joins a mentor (Obi-Wan) and discovers he is fated to revive the noble-protector legacy of the once-extinct Dragon Riders (Jedi). He learns sword fighting in five minutes, magic incantations (a la Harry Potter) in 10. The boy evades sooty, snarling Ra’zac (orcs) through the rugged terrain of Alagaesia (Middle Earth) and embarks on a quest to save a blonde. She is pretty, and perhaps too old for him. He rides the dragon. They fight for freedom (Helm’s Deep). Fire is breathed. There is clamor and rejoicing and the evil king (Emperor Palpatine) makes awkward allusion to the sequel.

So flows the filmic tale of Eragon as shallow, stunted scenes from a book. The distillation is squeezed from Christopher Paolini’s tome of the same name, first of the eventual Inheritance Trilogy. Paolini began writing the novel at age 15 and published it independently at age 19. On wide release, it became a bestseller that piqued interest among Harry Potter fans eager for a fantasy fix between J. K. Rowling releases. Its story bore darker edge than the Potter books, slightly more mature material laced with more action and deadly consequence. Borrowing from popular influences, the book rolled up all the fun stuff into one escapist story. While no masterwork, its quirks and tone spoke to the author’s considerable adolescent creativity.

Paolini delivered plenty of original and fun material for the filmmakers to work with; unfortunately they botched the adaptation. The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the last two Harry Potter films succeeded because filmmakers recognized the spirit of the stories and condensed the tales by careful editing, while tweaking and creating minor elements to help them succeed dramatically.

Here, they’ve instead chunked the story into key events and touch each one just long enough for some action shots before moving on. Story and explanation are abandoned. There is no cohesive structure to the tale, no context for the telling, and the movie comes off as a pointless run of ripped-off material, repackaged and tarted up with sharp graphics.

To its credit, the movie looks good from the animated Saphira right down to sets and costumes. Scenes of dragon flight are particularly adept, with acrobatics and crashes packing the biggest punch.

But Fangmeier struggles to make his action scenes engaging, largely for lack of suspense. The director has the annoying habit of giving too much warning before springing the surprise, dulling all with bland inevitability. Blank characters, from lead to third-string extra, prove troublesome as well. The headhunting Ra’zac, for example, are too long ignored; when finally used, they’re about as menacing as the Viking horde of credit card commercials.

Eragon is a thud of a dud, rendered all clunky, numb and dumb in its transfer to screen. Young fans not prone to critical viewing might be won by pretty visuals, though Paolini fans should be forgiven a pout.

Poor fantasy • PG • 104 mins

Evan Almighty

Like babyfood, insubstantial and easily digested.

reviewed by Mark Burns

Evan Baxter (Steve Carell) is a former local television anchor swept into office as a freshman congressman on his promise to “change the world.” He’s barely settled into his pristine niche of Virginia sprawl when a senior congressman ropes him into sponsoring a greedy land-use bill. God (Morgan Freeman) has other plans, appearing to Evan and commanding him to build an ark. Baxter takes some convincing, as animals start flocking to him in twos, but eventually defies warnings and pleadings to do God’s will amid media scrutiny.

What evolves is a lighthearted faith-and-family miniature epic as Evan learns to trust God and place family first. Family Circus’ Bil Keane could have drawn the poster art. His Jeffy might blush for one or two non sequiturs; spates of God doubting and a few mild quips. Even so, the film’s so full of warm goofiness that even Ned Flanders might approve.

That’s not to say it’s funny. By the seventh bird poop take or ninth mallet-on-thumb gag or dozenth happy dance, you realize this film has nothing original to offer in terms of comedy. Cute mini-miracles were bolder and funnier in Bruce Almighty; here they come off as weak rehash.

More terribly, the film is a direct rip-off of The Santa Clause: No, I do not want to be Santa/Noah. But why is my hair growing? Gasp! It grows back as soon as I cut it! People think I’m goofy and make fun of me. I frighten my family. But the spirit of Santa/Noah grows with my hair. What’s this? My costume has mysteriously arrived. It is so comfortable. Oh well, I guess I am Santa/Noah after all. Let’s go do wholesome deeds! (Roll credits.)

The film might find its fans on another level, as a kid-friendly religious epic. Evan Almighty rides a wave of faith-based environmentalism as it preaches responsible stewardship over God’s creation. It also lightly considers the challenge of keeping faith amid mockery and skepticism. These aspects, plus the family-values angle, make for a film that could pass for a decent church hall matinee.

Still, the storyline is a clumsy sermon. The story is a string of family movie clichés; The script is dim and shallow, skipping here and there and ignoring the peripheral. For instance, Evan is closely trailed by growing hordes of animals, yet passersby hardly lift a head in notice. The movie is a mismatch for Carell, who thrives in smart, awkward comedy. Director Tom Shadyac (Ace Ventura, Bruce Almighty), a veteran Jim Carrey conspirator, can’t rescue his star. He just doesn’t get Carell, and is lost without Carrey’s kinetic craziness to carry the film. Thus Carell is Moses, wandering the comedic wastes for what seems like 40 years.

There are bright spots. Scenes of the animal kingdom are well done and likely a fascination for younger kids. Parents seeking child entertainment with fewer encroaching adult in-jokes might also be satisfied by the gentle nature of this simple story. It’s like Gerber, insubstantial and easily digested.

Poor comedy-religious epic • PG • 90 mins.

Everyone's Fine

© Miramax Films

Widower Robert DeNiro sets out on a frustrated search for connection with his four children after they bag a reunion cookout.

A widower treks around the country to reconnect
with his kids in this dull drama.

reviewed by Mark Burns ~ December 10, 2009

Frank (Robert DeNiro: Righteous Kill) is eight months widowed and feeling even more lonesome after his four kids ditch a reunion cookout. Determined to bridge the disconnect, the dad wends to New York, Chicago, Denver and Las Vegas to drop in on each of his kids unannounced. He wants to reinject himself into their lives but soon realizes that his rosy perception is quite different from the truth.

The film is a remake of a 1990 Italian movie. In the original, Cinema Paradiso auteur Giuseppe Tornatore followed widowed Sicilian bureaucrat Matteo on a similar trip through Italy’s mainland.

Adapted, Frank is an afflicted blue-collar retiree who used to coat power lines in PVC. His handiwork is drawn to the fore and becomes metaphor for his crisscross of the country. The lines also course with the calls of his children as they collaborate to protect him from one unfortunate truth and several smaller ones to avoid disappointing. His quest is a frustrated search for connection.

The widower walkabout has promise. About Schmidt succeeded in that vein by ruffling a still man with smart drama, eccentricity and humor. Up was a surprisingly nuanced adventure. This one, too, starts out pretty well as it shows the father in a spate of nesting and motivates him to the road-and-rail trip. DeNiro hands in a consistently solid, subtle performance.

Sadly, this subtlety is not counterbalanced; director Kirk Jones (Nanny McPhee) is widowed by the death of interest.

Frank is stoic, and the sting of loss is weakly hinted. His situation with the kids is patiently developed, but there’s little depth beyond trite repetition on the theme of not wanting to disappoint a dad who expected so much of his kids. Those children are just so many Eeyores, vaguely unhappy souls with no personality and barely a drip beyond locale and vocation to define them. The quest itself is plain and attempted dramatic flashpoints might as well be Piglet stuttering Oh, dear. There’s no vibrancy to the journey, no eccentricity in even the ripest incidental characters.

Creativity’s extent is a Nicholas Sparks-style thunderhead of tired metaphor and real-time flashbacks to the children as children. That much merely comes off creepy; the short-version kids are homogenous drones seemingly instructed to stare and speak blankly. Dream visions of these Muppet Babies are flat and misty, a tired retread of Italian art-house material.

Could be you’re in the mood for a family melodrama with a slim Christmas connection. For that you might sit and watch. But you also might sit and watch the grey wall of a government cubicle and come away with a similarly affecting experience.

Boring family drama • PG-13 • 100 mins.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose

A strange marriage of law and spiritual disorder intriguing in concept but flawed in execution

reviewed by Mark Burns

Law & Order meets The Exorcist in this faith-centric meld of horror and courtroom drama.

Emily Rose is loosely based on the story of Anneliese Michel, a German whose exorcism in 1976 was the last officially sanctioned by the Catholic Church. In fictionalized form, the demonic victim is Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter), daughter of a devout American heartland family. Following an exorcism attempt, agnostic legal ace Erin Bruner (Laura Linney) must defend exorcist Father Moore's (Tom Wilkinson) actions in a court of law. Bruner's investigation delves deep into the dark mysteries of spirituality in which she's now not sure she doesn't believe. As her defense evolves, the courtroom becomes the stage for a contest between spirituality and reason.

So dense is the courtroom drama that Emily Rose is less a horror than a legal flick with supernatural flair. Our filmic present is in the trial, the ghastly details of Emily Rose's possession coming to light gradually by way of flashbacks through investigation and testimony. Conceptually, it's a novel approach to the horror genre, grounding the tale in realism and taking a skeptic's perspective on unfolding truth. It almost works but not quite.

Director Scott Derrickson shows enough demonic invasion to foster some chills. His eerie creep is much more subtle than Linda Blair's head-turning deformation and projectile vomiting; Derrickson disturbs with a psychological stalk through shadows and desolate hues with outbursts of Aramaic torment. The tingle, though, never evolves into an all-out bone chill because of its dilution in numbing legalese and the detached timeline. Father Moore's trial serves as a safe haven, separating us from all-out confrontation with the demonic possession.

There is potential for deeper fear, but Derrickson opts out on psychological horror by dismissing the theory that Emily might be the victim of her own psychotic delirium. Suspense dwindles quickly, too, in the first minutes, as too much is revealed too soon.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a strange marriage of law and spiritual disorder intriguing in concept but flawed in execution. That said, it might be fun for casual John Grisham fans in the mood for moderate horror.

Fair theistic courtroom horror • PG-13 • 114 mins.


© Miramax Films

Ben Affleck plays the consoling bartender to lead man Jason Bateman in Extract.

Quirky characters aside, it’s quickly forgettable.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

A sexually frustrated factory owner juggles troubling times at home and at the office in the flat and muddled oddball comedy Extract. From the mind of writer-director Mike Judge (Office Space; TV’s King of the Hill), this comedy’s only chuckles come thanks to a strong cast of quirky characters, not to the material.

Joel (Jason Bateman) runs a flavor-extract company that he founded. Manager Brian (J.K Simmons) is excited that the company might be bought out by a large corporation, while the rest of Joel’s weirdo and not-too-bright employees (Clifton Collins Jr.; Beth Grant) get through their days with the usual assortment of hair-brained complaints. Meanwhile, Joel laments to drug-addled bartender friend Dean (Ben Affleck) about frustration on the home front, where Joel hasn’t slept with his wife Suzie (Kristen Wiig) in months. In comes con-woman and thief Cindy (Mila Kunis) to shake up the usual routine, and schemes are launched.

Give writer-director Judge credit for mining the work-a-day world for quirk-filled characters and plots hatched in run-of-the-mill settings. After all, every comedy shouldn’t have to feature angst-ridden teenagers and be set in the Hollywood Hills. Judge has his hand on the working-class pulse. It’s just that where he takes us isn’t all that interesting or funny.

This film is ultimately about a husband and wife potentially cheating on each other. The sort-of-happy ending that develops leaves a bad taste in our mouths.

Meanwhile, the workplace is filled with dolts who seem to care little about their work or their fellow co-workers, though Judge seems to want us to think they do. We’re not sure if we are supposed to take pity on them or point and laugh at them as at animals at the zoo. Either way, it doesn’t work.

Bateman is a natural as the not-especially-sympathetic Joel, and he rises above it all by staying away from the weird to deliver a quite believable upwardly mobile husband.

On the oddball side, David Koechner as Joel’s annoying neighbor Nathan is likely the character who will stick with us. His speech patterns are not unlike the now legendary boss Lumbergh (Gary Cole) from Office Space, while his ability to annoy us is similar to the same movie’s worm-at-the-apple-core Milton (Stephen Root). Most everything else in Extract will be forgotten quickly.

Fair comedy • R • 91 mins.

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